Sunday, 30 December 2012

Beyond "Ramrajya" And Phantom's Country

In Phantom country, it is said that a woman clad in jewels may walk without fear.
- Old Jungle Saying

I'm the eternal optimist. I see improvement in human society all the time. Even in this darkest period when a young woman has died of her horrific injuries inflicted on her by a group of ruthlessly lustful and jealous men, when the government and police of a supposedly democratic country have failed to respond sensitively to the concerns of citizens, I still see signs of a better society emerging.

After all, what would have been worse is if the assault had occurred and it hadn't made news, if it hadn't spurred people to protest, if it hadn't forced the government to trip and embarrass itself, if it hadn't forced a society to look into the mirror and confront its own prejudices.

There's hope in this, because it's a form of catharsis. We have been through trauma, and we have hopefully become a little more aware of what we have done wrong. Now's the time to start improving ourselves.

Although the immediate case has been one of rape (accompanied by brutal torture and mutilation that resulted in death), the larger and more prevalent issue is sexual harassment, and it has been part of Indian society for a very long time.

I don't agree with those who are arguing for stricter laws and more stringent punishment. Our laws in fact need to be modified in the opposite direction to become less barbaric, more humane. I think what we need is a radical change in attitude as a society, and I would go so far as to say that it's worth throwing thousands of years of Indian culture and tradition onto the trash heap if that's the price of becoming a more civilised society.

Traditionalist Indians speak wistfully of a Utopian "Ramrajya" (The rule of Lord Rama) under which peace and perfect justice are said to have reigned. I have nothing but contempt for this concept. That period was precisely when Lord Rama, merely because one of his subjects made a moralistic judgement about Queen Sita having spent time under the roof of another man (when she was abducted!), decided to banish his wife to the jungle! Talk about blaming the victim. If that was Ramrajya, I want no part of it.

Ramrajya - the aesthetic face of an oppressively patriarchal society

I'm in Singapore right now, and the answer to India's problems is staring me in the face.

Everywhere in Singapore, you find young, attractive women in shorts and skimpy tops (what the prudish Indian might call "provocatively dressed"), walking about alone at all hours of the day and night, catching public transport and in general going about their business without any self-consciousness or fear. This is not just because Singapore has harsh laws and strict policing. That's part of the story, but doesn't explain it all. What's equally remarkable is the attitude of males in Singaporean society. There is a seeming absence of awareness of women other than as fellow pedestrians or fellow commuters, which is what any woman anywhere would cherish. It's the right to be ignored, to be left alone.

Singapore - where everyone just minds their own business and there are no moral police

It's fair to point out that most of the women I described above are ethnic Chinese. Ethnic Indians are dressed more conservatively, and ethnic Malays even more so.

Perhaps it's these latter societies that have a problem!

In Australia too, women dress in ways that would be considered "too revealing" in more conservative cultures, yet women are far more comfortable and secure in Australia than even conservatively dressed women are in those other societies. This clearly demonstrates that it's not the woman's dress that matters. It's the attitude of society, specifically the attitude of males.

When I was younger, I remember reading comics by Lee Falk about the masked vigilante known as the Phantom, and the Old Jungle Saying, "In Phantom country, it is said that a woman clad in jewels may walk without fear."

The Phantom - an obviously fictitious children's character who walks into bars and orders milk

Now, I believe Lee Falk was either being disingenuous or just conscious of the under-age nature of his readership, which is why this Old Jungle Saying, heartwarming as it may be, is actually being dishonest. What does it mean to be "clad in jewels"? The woman's jewellery is a red herring. After all, a woman being robbed of her jewellery is in no worse state than a man who is robbed of his wallet. The Old Jungle Saying might just as well be about a man with money in his wallet walking without fear. It's disingenuous to pretend that crimes against women are about their jewellery. Crimes against women are against their own person. They themselves are the prize.

In my late teens, I read James Hadley Chase's novel "An Ear To The Ground", which revolves around a beautiful piece of diamond jewellery called the Esmaldi necklace. In one scene, the man to whose wife it belongs asks his mistress to strip naked and wear the necklace, and remarks that it was made for her. I remember thinking at the time that if I had a choice between a beautiful naked woman and the priceless necklace she was wearing, I would toss the necklace away without a thought. So much for the value of being "clad in jewels".

Even my teenage self knew that the Old Jungle Saying was too coy. It pretends that what would attract a criminal to a woman walking about are her jewels. 

Since I don't have the same constraints of a juvenile readership that Lee Falk had, let me boldly restate his Old Jungle Saying to form a vision statement for Utopia: "In any country, an unclad woman may walk without fear."

That addresses the issue of dress. Let's address behaviour with an equally extreme example: "Even a prostitute has a right to be free from sexual molestation." This may seem as obvious to the socially liberal as the proverbial nose on one's face, but unfortunately, not everyone in society is socially liberal, so it needs to be stated as bluntly as possible.

These two statements really confront the core issue, don't they? The patriarchal notion that women are to be cherished and protected from harm, as long as they dress modestly and behave in an "appropriate" manner, is the problem. The moment a woman strays from the ideal that has been prescribed, all bets are off and she becomes fair game. So let us take this bull by the horns and state these two principles loud and clear.

A woman can dress any way she chooses (including not wearing any clothes at all) and behave any way she chooses (including being a prostitute), and yet has a right not to be sexually molested.

This is going to be a very hard pill for many to swallow, and there will be many "yes, but" objections. I'm going to stand firm on this. I don't care what standards of morality you think a woman is violating. You may not disregard a human being's right to be left alone.

Having been a young male myself (a few decades ago!), I know the feeling of desire for an attractive young female whom one encounters in a public setting. When in a group, the rush of testosterone can be quite heady, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the young woman is a human being too. That's the precise juncture at which the right upbringing will make a difference. If a young man feels conflicted enough between his own desires and the knowledge that the object of his desire is an equal human being who may just want to be left alone, it will be a wonderful way to internalise the core moral lesson in that situation and to mature and grow into a responsible male member of society.

After all, there are only two realistic outcomes to a young man's behaviour when he sees an attractive young woman in a public setting:

1. Leave her alone => fail to get her
2. Be obnoxious => fail to get her

The movie alternative of being obnoxious and getting her doesn't really happen in real life, and it's time this was drilled into young men. It doesn't matter if you don't "get" a woman you're attracted to. What's more important is that you behave in a moral manner at all times, and by "moral", I mean being empathetic to the feelings of other living beings.

Empathy is all-important. I remember a conversation when I was a young, unmarried man. We were a group of young, unmarried men working in a software company in Mumbai. It was a rambling discussion, and we finally came to the topic of marriage and how women (and men too) lost their virginity on their wedding night. Given that most people at the time had arranged marriages, women often wouldn't know their husbands well enough on their wedding night, and yet the couple was expected to consummate their marriage that very night. One of my friends thought about women in that situation (of the pain they would experience as well as the foreboding of that pain and the general feeling of being trapped into having sex with a virtual stranger) and said, "Poor things, it must be a very traumatic experience for them." It was a sentiment of empathy that humanised him and earned him my respect for life. A couple of other guys also indicated that they wouldn't force their wives into sex on their wedding night but would wait until they were more comfortable.

I quote this incident to demonstrate that Indian men need not all be the callous, misogynistic brutes that the Delhi rape case may make them out to be. It's just that some of them simply haven't learnt enough empathy.

[Of course, empathy need not bear any correlation to formal education. A senior of mine, a graduate of the prestigious IIT and IIM, once told me with a knowing smirk, "There are times when one must not be gentle." I pitied his future wife.]

Another reason why young men persist in behaving badly even when they know that bad behaviour doesn't get them what they may ultimately want (a loving and intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex) is explained by psychology. Positive feedback, or "positive strokes" are among the most desirable social inputs for a human being. Negative feedback, or "negative strokes", are obviously undesirable, but surprisingly, they are seen to be vastly preferable to no strokes at all! That's why neglected children often behave badly. Punishment is preferable to being ignored.

The disgusted and irritated reaction of women to sexual harassment is the "negative stroke" that sustains these men. This is going to be a hard problem to solve, because giving these men positive strokes (i.e., encouragement) is obviously not the answer, nor is it feasible to simply ignore them. As a society, we will need to find a way around this problem.

The immediate lesson is to teach empathy, I believe. As a society, we need to drive home the lesson that all living beings have rights and are deserving of respect. Women don't need to be put on a pedestal or worshipped as goddesses. We've been doing this for aeons and it clearly hasn't worked. If the younger generation can be brought up to treat all human beings as equal, the evil of sexual harassment, along with the larger problem of sexism itself, and related evils like casteism and communalism, can gradually start to be erased.

Another well-known Old Jungle Saying assures us that Phantom is rough with roughnecks, but unfortunately, the Phantom is a fictitious character. In the real world, it's vastly more important to stop our children from growing up to be roughnecks in the first place.

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